Please note that since this article was first written, winter fuel payments for pensioners living abroad are no longer available. That in itself has caused some controversy as you will see from the comments at the end of the original article (which follows here).
Most of us have become familiar with winter fuel payments being made by the UK government to people over the age of 60 who qualify for them to help them towards the additional cost of heating their homes over the colder British winter months. What many of us have only recently realised, however, is that people who qualify but who now live abroad are also entitled to receive these same payments too. It was recently revealed that over £10 million has so far been paid out to people for winter fuel payments but who no longer live in the UK. But it is an issue that has become very controversial since the figures were released.
How do You Qualify for a Winter Fuel Payment in the First Instance?
Firstly, you do not need to apply for a winter fuel payment. If you qualify, they are automatically sent out to you, although if you think you qualify but have not received a payment, you may need to fill out a claim form. To qualify, a person needs to be over 60 and in receipt of a state pension or some other form of social security entitlement (excluding Housing Benefit, Child Benefit or Council Tax Benefit). You need to qualify by a set date earlier in the year to receive payment for that coming winter and payments are usually made from November onwards.
Why Has This Issue Caused Controversy?
Firstly, the winter fuel payments were initially introduced to help alleviate financial hardship for the elderly whose health could be put at risk by them deciding not to keep their heating on for long periods over the colder British winter months because, in doing so, they might not be able to afford it given that their heating bills would become inevitably higher and yet their incomes might not be able to cover the additional costs. It is not a ‘means tested’ payment. Therefore, no matter how rich or poor you are has no bearing on you receiving it, as long as you meet the criteria. Therefore, some people have been ‘up in arms’ over the likes of those who meet the criteria but who have left the UK to escape from the British winter to go and live in sunnier and warmer climates such as Spain, whereby opponents argue that the weather is warm there anyway and so those receiving the payments abroad do not, in fact, need it.
And yes, it is true that many older people have decided to ‘up sticks’ and move from the UK to the likes of Spain for this very reason. In fact, when the figures were announced, it was residents in Spain and France who formed the most significant proportion of those who receive the payments. That said, there are many ex UK residents who now live in other countries within the EU where winters are either equally or even colder than those which we experience in the UK. It’s also important to remember that even in certain areas of France and Spain, winters (though maybe not as harsh as our own) can and do increase the cost of heating bills over the winter months. The argument, however, is often cited at those people who live in areas such as the Costa del Sol or the likes of Mallorca – both popular places to retire to and where severely harsh winters are very few and far between. Secondly, with the UK experiencing a spell of some of the steepest increases in the cost of electricity and gas over recent years, this has outraged opponents even further who’d argue that surely the payments being made to those residing in the likes of southern Spain do not really need the extra money for fuel and it could be put to far better use in helping to assist those back here in the UK who are suffering from financial hardship. And, with the scale of recent gas and electricity price hikes, this has only made the situation here an even more difficult burden to cope with.
Why is This Then ‘Allowed’ to Happen?
Basically, the freedom of movement of people to live, work and receive benefits throughout the EEA (European Economic Area), of which it has to be mentioned that, as UK residents, we have also benefited from in terms of being permitted to work and live in countries which we weren’t previously automatically entitled to do so, has meant that, under EU law, benefits which have been acquired in one member state are equally entitled to receive them if they move to another member state within the EEA, bar a few exceptions to the rule.
Whatever side of the ‘fence’ you stand on with regard to this issue, the fact is that if you do meet the criteria and live in an EEA country, you are probably entitled to receive winter fuel payments. It’s also important to take a wider view that not all pensioners living abroad reside in countries where it’s continually warm and not all of them are well off financially.
To find out more about entitlements to the Winter Fuel Payment scheme, you should visit the Pension Service website.